One Big Unhappy Family

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by Pancho

About a decade ago I had a curious visitor to my office at the London School of Economics. An American in his mid-fifties, he explained that he had been a student in the 1960s and had come by to see who was in the office of a former professor. I asked him what he was now doing. “I am the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia,” he replied. Previously, Wyche Fowler had been a Democratic senator from Georgia, losing his seat in 1992; he had then been appointed US ambassador in Riyadh by President Clinton, a position he held from 1996 to 2001. So, I asked him, how would he evaluate the situation in this notoriously opaque country? Ambassador Fowler explained that indeed it was difficult to monitor the country; he and his colleagues were largely confined to the embassy, and access to Saudis was extremely difficult. As ambassador, he said, the only person he could really talk to was the King—an experience he compared, with a little irony, to talking to Ronald Reagan.

He was not alone in finding it difficult to get a handle on Saudi Arabia. Until the past decade or so, there was almost no reliable academic or journalistic writing on the country.1 US intelligence and diplomatic analysis did little better. As The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll’s fascinating recent book, demonstrates, precise knowledge about the workings of power, members of the ruling elite, security, and money was intrinsically impossible to find.

Along with several other American ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Wyche Fowler has a walk-on part in Coll’s book. Following the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, Fowler was told to put pressure on the Saudis to reveal details of the bin Laden family finances and links to Osama, who took credit for the bombings. He found himself caught up in conflicts between different branches of the US government, each insisting that it had the best means of getting the desired information. It is easy to claim that one or another approach would have made a decisive difference, that the September 11 attacks could have been avoided, or that the Saudis could really have closed down the al-Qaeda operation. Looked at from the outside, however, such assumptions appear less certain. In a world where public statistics, and accounts, are largely inventions, in which even basic figures of national income and expenditure are worthless, conventional forms of investigation, based on experience in the United States or elsewhere, are of little use.

To read Coll’s book is to enter a universe of perpetual movement and deal-making, but one in which little, if anything, is recorded or written down, where power and money are distributed by means of kin networks, informal gatherings of influential Saudi males, and the mobile phone. The Bin Ladens is not so much a book about Osama bin Laden himself, or his terrorist…

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